We’re blowing down the road, headed to Hal Colliver’s place southwest of Iowa City to look at his sign collection. The GPS is chattering and I’m consulting notes I’ve made on Hal’s address. When I look up, it’s pretty clear we’ve reached our destination. An old saying comes to mind: You can’t miss it.
When it comes to signs, as any knowledgeable collector knows, it’s not really necessary to qualify “antique” with “collectible.” These days, any old sign is hot. Doesn’t matter what it’s made of, doesn’t matter what category it falls into, doesn’t matter whether it’s in good shape. Signs sell like hotcakes – spendy hotcakes.
“They’re very high-priced these days,” Hal says. “They’re completely out of sight. It’s not about what the sign is worth; it’s about what you want to give for it.” Hal is the enviable guy who got to the party early. “I guess I started collecting 50 years ago,” he says. “I was a truck driver and I’d see billboards. I never went by a billboard I didn’t read.”
Then a buddy who worked as a county road maintainer gave him a sign declaring, “Enter at own risk.” Prophetic words, those. Hal became a sign collector and never looked back. I ask how many signs he has; I don’t get much of an answer. The more I look around, I realize the question is akin to asking how many stars shine overhead.
Porcelain, neon, wood, tin, plastic and glass. Soda, petroleum, oil, beer, businesses. Livestock breeds, ice cream, tobacco and taverns. Feed & seed, restaurants, tires, batteries. Political, municipal and just plain directional: No sign is turned away from Hal’s collection. “Once in a while I end up with a duplicate,” he says. “I sell those, but that doesn’t happen much anymore.”
The signs are not hidden away. Clearly visible from the road, they draw in passing drivers. “People pull in and gawk,” Hal says. “I have them sign my guestbook. We even had a TV crew from Brazil here one time.”
Rising on 20-foot pedestals in the driveway, a row of petroleum signs – DX, Standard and Shell – keep company with antique gas pumps. Exterior walls of four sheds and an old barn are nearly completely covered with signs. Several concrete islands house clusters of signs, pumps and even an old drive-up pay phone with a rain hood. Purists might fret about exposure to the elements. “Oh, the signs are getting faded,” Hal allows with a smile. “But I’m fading too.”
Inside the sheds are more signs. In one shed, a complete and functional bar is surrounded by more signs than you could count. There are so many electrical signs that the dimly lit area glows like a carnival on a summer night. Conveniently located sofas swallow up crowds. Hal likes to entertain, and his collection creates a congenial environment. “I just like preserving Americana. I don’t have a computer or smartphone,” he says. “I have signs.”
A career as a truck driver provided opportunity to snap up signs from every corner of the country. “The farthest I ever went for a sign was Winslow, Arizona,” Hal says. “That’s where I got the Gulf sign. I was loading at a ranch when I saw it. The rancher said he’d sell it for a case of beer, so I gave him $20 for it. I had to unload and reload that sign twice before I finally got home with it.”
He’s attended his share of auctions, and wouldn’t miss the Iowa Gas show held every summer in Des Moines. “You can find anything there,” Hal says. Whether you can pay for it is another matter. “I saw a Dixie sign at Independence, Iowa, in 2014 for $900,” he says. “Then I saw one like it sell at Iowa Gas for $8,000. It’s just a matter of how bad you want it.”
Some signs just turn up. “Friends give them to me,” he says. “And I found the Shell sign in a ditch.” Several have local connections. An American sign came from nearby Washington, Iowa; another relic is from a local elevator. Yet another promoted the Chicago Livestock Market. “It was on five big posts. They were clearing the site and I knew the dozer would get it, but I didn’t have a saw with me,” he says. “So we wrassled it to the ground.”
Most of Hal’s signs were in good condition when he bought them. If a sign needed particular repair – say, electrical work – he has it done. “I’m all thumbs,” he says. “I couldn’t restore anything.” He’s also had a lot of electrical work done to accommodate all the working lights. Using timers, the outside display is lit nightly from about 7 to 10:30 p.m. After he’s gone, Hal hopes the collection can be preserved intact. “If you took the signs down, the buildings would probably fall down,” he says with a grin. “Or at least there’d be a lot of holes in the walls.”
The buildings hold other treasures as well. A collection of antique oil cans. A 1930 International 6-speed Special truck he bought years ago for $105 (“That was three weeks’ wages back then!” he recalls). A cutter, a grain drill and a planter so old it has wooden wheels. “There are a few things around here that are older than me,” he says dryly.
Just as Hal’s collection takes all comers (including life-size cardboard cutouts of John Wayne and the Maytag man), it has grown to include gas pumps. Some are the real deal; others are reproductions. Hal began collecting pumps in the last 20 years. Today his collection totals 29. The pumps are a sweet reminder of his youth. “I worked part time at a DX station when I was in high school,” he says.
On a warm, breezy night at summer’s end, Hal’s pumps and illuminated signs glow against a velvet sky. I am reminded of a small town I once knew. Decades ago, it was home to at least half a dozen independently owned gas stations, each with a full-time mechanic. On summer nights, those that stayed open past supper (and none were open after 9 o’clock) were bathed in an amber glow from the yellow bulbs thought to chase bugs away. Teenage boys washed windshields and made small talk while they pumped gas. And the sign? “A&W and DX: One-stop service.” FC
For more information: Hal Colliver, 1720 230th St., Keota, IA 52248; (319) 330-9729.
Iowa Gas Swap Meet and Auction, for collectors of gas and oil petroliana and auto advertising: Aug. 2-5, 2016, Des Moines, Iowa; online at www.iowagas.com.